Destination Shopping: Stepback on why everyone’s buying old crates

At this Kitsilano store, what's old is always new—and changing

March 8, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Gibson Switzer

Chris Switzer isn’t your average dumpster diver. After all, most people who make a habit out of trawling through other people’s garbage don’t own thriving businesses. But when you’re in the business of selling reclaimed furniture, antiques, and other accessories, being willing to pick through what other people consider trash is an occupational hazard. Switzer and his wife, Robin Muxlow, have owned and operated Stepback, a Kitsilano store that trades in reclaimed and upcycled items, since February 2005. “It’s finding stuff and rescuing it from the dump—literally, sometimes, rescuing it from the dump, or the dumpster—and bringing it back to life and into the stream,” Switzer says.

Lately, the things he’s been trying to bring back into the stream are buried inside the torrent of old desks, lockers, and other potential treasures coming out of Kitsilano Secondary School as it undergoes a long-awaited (and long overdue) seismic upgrade. And while Switzer says he’s reached out to the Vancouver School Board numerous times in an attempt to divert some of those items from the landfill, his appeals have fallen on deaf—or, perhaps, administratively impaired—ears. “I just wanted to go and poke around in the dumpster [at the Vancouver School Board works yard at Clark and Terminal] because you knew there was probably tons of amazing stuff in these just going to the dump. It’s very frustrating. And I’ve tried. You phone, and you talk to somebody, but they say ‘You have to talk to this person,’ and then you phone them and you have to talk Stepback2to somebody else.”

As a result, he’s had to conscript teachers from inside the school in order to liberate the more interesting items. “It’s long since been accounted for—all of these old school maps and dusty old boxers and lockers and bits of furniture. So the only real way to get it is some principal or teacher realizes that, knows that it’s just going to get thrown out, and contacts us, either because they’ve seen something in the window or they’re customers of the shop.” He says he makes a donation whenever someone brings something in, either to their parent advisory council or to a fundraiser that they’re involved with. But he says that even with their help there’s still far more going into the landfill than he can save from it, and he laments the loss of things like old nurse’s room cabinets. “They’re literally smashed to bits and put in the dumpster, and they’re awesome cabinets. It’s crazy.”

In a way, Switzer was born to run a store like Stepback. He comes from a family of collectors, and his parents often involved him in their own treasure hunts. “I was a late addition—all of my siblings are at least 10 years older than me, so by the time I came around it wasn’t hockey and swimming club, it was going with mom and day to flea markets and auctions.” When he decided to open the store more than a decade ago, his parents were still making furniture out of recycled materials, and that gave him a head start on building up his inventory. “My dad passed away about five years ago, and there’s not a single piece left of dad’s, I don’t think. But that was the starting point.”

That treasure hunt aspect of the business is important to its success, he says—and what keeps it interesting for him and his wife. “I think it’s a big part of why we’ve been able to make it. It’s been eleven years this month, which is crazy. I joke that it’s a new store every week, but it really is. There’s nothing that isn’t for sale, so if you sell a table or a cabinet you have to redo the whole place. It’s constantly rotating, which keeps it fun for us and keeps people wanting to come back.” Of course, among all the new pieces and interesting finds are the old favourites that never seem to go out of style, and the wooden crates and old suitcases that are stacked throughout the store are fixtures at the top of that list. “The crates are crazy—we’ve somehow become known as the crate shop, because we sell thousands of them. It’s almost a full-time job for my mom, who we’re incredibly lucky to have on the hunt for them constantly.”

Switzer thinks that the nearly insatiable demand for the crates and suitcases, which range from $20 to $60, are a reflection of the fact that they combine form and function. “It’s something that people can justify, because it has a purpose—people are using them to store things. We have them everywhere in our home—dairy crates by the front door to keep the kids’ shoes in, or a cool looking one in the living room with the magazines in it. Our son has a butter box that records fit into perfectly. They’re great.” The other big seller at Stepback is old technology—with, Switzer says, one curious exception. “I sell literally hundreds and hundreds of typewriters every year, and hundreds of cameras as well, but I’ve maybe sold three old sewing machines in 11 years.” He also sells plenty of rotary phones, and notes that they’re not the purely decorative item that so many people seem to believe. “You can’t press one for more options or anything like that, but they totally function—at home, we have Shaw, and ours still works. It’s not a defunct technology yet.”

So, who shops at Stepback? Almost everybody, as it turns out. “People ask often ask, ‘Who shops here?’ expecting me to say it’s a certain demographic—it’s all twenty-somethings or it’s all bearded hipsters or it’s all middle-aged women. But it’s not. It’s 13-year-old girls and 95-year-old men and everyone in between, and maybe for the same items.” That common ground, he says, suggests that there’s more than just nostalgia for sale at Stepback. “For some people, it’s nostalgia—definitely. But it’s also the stuff of life.”

Stepback
2936 West Broadway
604-731-7525
stepback.ca

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